OTTAWA — Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is expected to face pointed questions when he travels to the United Nations next week to help commemorate those peacekeepers who have been killed in the line of duty.
The minister is scheduled to travel to New York next Wednesday, where he will participate in the UN’s annual ceremony for honouring the more than 3,500 blue helmets who have been killed since 1948.
The International Day for UN Peacekeepers is May 29, but that falls on Memorial Day in the U.S. this year, so the world body is remembering its fallen peacekeepers the week before.
Sajjan will also preside over a luncheon to launch Canada’s hosting of a major peacekeeping summit in Vancouver this coming November, and meet with the new head of UN peacekeeping, Jean-Pierre Lacroix.
But one thing Sajjan is not expected to do is provide an answer on where the Liberal government plans to send hundreds of promised Canadian peacekeepers.
The UN has been waiting months for Canada to announce such a decision, after the Liberals promised last August to provide up to 600 troops to a future, unspecified peacekeeping mission.
Lacroix’s predecessor, Herve Ladsous, expressed disappointment with Canada during his final press conference in March, saying he was initially excited by the promise but “so far, it hasn’t materialized.”
Diplomatic sources, some of whom have expressed their own impatience and even frustration over what they see as the government’s dithering, expect the matter to be front and centre during Sajjan’s visit.
Sajjan’s office said Wednesday that the federal cabinet still hasn’t decided on a mission. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week that the Liberals would not be rushed into a decision.
The government has indicated it plans to start laying the groundwork for an eventual peacekeeping mission with a speech from Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland early next month.
That will be followed by Sajjan unveiling the Liberals’ long-awaited defence policy update June 7.
One UN official questioned why Sajjan would make a high-profile appearance at the world body — including a joint press conference with Lacroix later in the day — when Canada still doesn’t have a mission.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak frankly on the matter, said Canada was given the opportunity to host the upcoming peacekeeping summit on the strength of its promised contribution to the cause.
One reason for the delay has been the government’s efforts to get a handle on the Trump administration, which has launched a review of the mandate of — and U.S. funding to — different peacekeeping missions.
There are also questions about whether the U.S. will expect Canada to step up in other areas, including the ongoing fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Walter Dorn, an expert on peacekeeping at the Canadian Forces College who is on a one-year appointment to the UN, welcomed Sajjan’s plans to visit New York and participate in next week’s commemorations.
But he said there has been a noticeable frustration toward Canada over its refusal to pick a mission and the burden imposed by countless different Canadian fact-finding visits, especially to Mali.
The fact Canada waffled when asked to provide desperately needed helicopters to Mali, as well as a force commander for the UN mission there, have only added to the sour feelings, he said.
“There’s frustration with Canada, yes,” Dorn said. “Canada seems to be dropping the ball. There was a huge amount of expectation, but we dropped the ball.”